Lori Shontz (© WCH Oregon22)
Maggie Vanoni was a sophomore at the University of Oregon in 2017 when she enrolled in a journalism class that changed her life forever.
Track Bureau is a class in the School of Journalism and Communications (SOJC) created by professor Lori Shontz in 2015 to teach students what it takes to be a sports journalism or public relations professional.
“I love track, I love writing, I was in the J-school, but I didn’t really know what sports journalism looked like,” Vanoni said. “I was like, I like track so I should take this, and I took it, and it was so much fun. That’s when I really realized I wanted to do this.”
The course itself was born at Penn State University where Shontz was teaching when the Nittany Lions traveled to Dublin, Ireland, for a 2014 college football game against Central Florida. Penn State donors footed the bill to send Shontz and six students to the game to cover it as a news bureau for local media outlets that couldn’t afford to make the overseas trip.
The following spring Shontz started teaching the Track Bureau class at Oregon after she was hired by the School of Journalism and Communications as a full-time professor.
“It operated just like a newsroom,” said Joseph Hoyt, a 2016 University of Oregon graduate who is a Major League Baseball and college sports beat reporter for the Dallas Morning News. “It was a fantastic look inside, especially for people who didn’t have a lot of journalism experience, of what a newsroom is like. Lori was our editor in chief, and we just had a bureau of sports reporters. She guided us, she treated us like newsroom full-time reporters.”
Lori Shontz and junior journalism student Izzy LaRue discuss coverage strategy of the May 6 Oregon Twilight Meet at Hayward Field.
The class consists of guest speakers, both in person and online. The guest speakers and modules about such things as track and field event training give students background and knowledge in the sport. That is mixed with event coverage of track and field meets at Hayward Field at the University of Oregon and the annual Eugene Marathon. The early season meets for students are “rust busters,” Shontz said, just as they are for athletes beginning their outdoor season.
The course opens with a guest appearance from Christian Taylor, the two-time Olympic gold medalist and American men’s record-holder in the triple jump, and covering the Hayward Premiere, the first meet every season at Hayward Field. Other class guests have included former Oregon and current Virginia head coach Vin Lananna, who helped lead the quest to bring the World Athletics Championships to Oregon, and former Oregon college standouts such as Raevyn Rogers, Jessica Hull, and Lauren Crockett. Other guest speakers have included Eugene Marathon director Ian Dobson, and George Walcott, the sprints coach at NAIA Bushnell University in Eugene, Ore.
According to the course syllabus, the class has a training plan like a track and field athlete would have. Students build their base, settle into a pace, and focus on technique work. Then in early May, they pick up the pace with the Oregon Twilight, and this year shifted into high-intensity training a little earlier with the just-completed Pac-12 Conference Championships. After a recovery week, it’s time to raise the bar with the annual Prefontaine Classic, the only Diamond League meet on U.S. soil every year.
After a brief taper following the Pre Classic, it’s championships/finals week with the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships. When Oregon hosts the NCAA meet, as it will this year, that event becomes the course’s final exam. In other years, the Prefontaine Classic has served as the final exam. Fifty percent of a student’s grade is based off event coverage and work done in the final, with 30% on other reporting assignments and 20% professionalism, with the percentages slightly different for graduate students.
For some, the course is a track and field introduction. It may also be the first time students do live reporting. The experiences of Hoyt, who was in the 2016 class, and Vanoni are typical of Track Bureau students. Hoyt had reporting experience with the Daily Emerald, the news division of the university’s independently run student media organization before he enrolled in the class. Vanoni was a reporting rookie.
“I learned a lot more about track and learned a lot more the ins and outs of the behind the scenes and how it works,” Vanoni said. “Learning more about these athletes, that I was prepared to talk with them and prepared to understand the answers they were giving me to questions and ask better questions. It really taught me how to be prepared as a reporter.”
That connection of young people to track and field is crucial, Shontz believes, in building interest in the sport domestically.
“If you want to grow the sport here, you need to get journalists, storytellers excited about the sport when they’re in college,” Shontz said, “because I do think the sports you have fun covering in college are the ones that you keep an eye out for the rest of your career, and I do see that happening with the track and field crowd.”
Oregon is on the quarter or term schedule for classes, so the Track Bureau is a 10-week course offered only during spring term to coincide with Hayward Field home meets, which this year also includes the USATF Outdoor Championships on June 23–26. All those meets lead up to the July 15–24 World Athletics Championships Oregon22, the first time the outdoor World Championships have been held on U.S. soil.
“I really firmly believe that journalism has to reflect the community it covers,” Shontz said, “and you can’t really understand Eugene unless you understand track and field. I like to say this class could not happen anywhere other than the University of Oregon because there are so many resources here, and also, very importantly, there are a lot of meets in one place.”
In the Track Bureau’s first lap in 2015, Shontz posted a message on the Associated Press sports editor’s Facebook page asking media outlets if they needed freelance help covering the NCAA Championships at Hayward Field. Media outlets from around the nation took Shontz up on her offer to use the Track Bureau students as freelance reporters.
“This is what kids need,” Vanoni said. “They need the chance to do the one freelance assignment to really push off on their career, to really know if this is what they want to do and how you do it. That was the first time I had ever done a freelance assignment and gotten paid for it, and I bet you that was a lot of those kids’ first time, too.”
Track Bureau students work under the watchful eye of professor Lori Shontz during the May 6 Oregon Twilight meet at Hayward Field.
In 2016, Shontz used her winter term Reporting II course as a sports journalism course for the first time. Students covered South Eugene High School boys basketball and Oregon women’s basketball on alternating weekends, with the final exam at the USATF National Indoor Championships in Portland.
“I think that something that Lori always taught us is that just because this Reporting II class was sports focused, it didn’t mean it couldn’t transfer over to news or whatever you were specifically interested in,” said Gabby Urenda, who was in that class and is a digital journalist for Portland television station KOIN. “I think that’s something that she really focused on was just the storytelling aspect of it and there was a story in everything.”
Shontz has a long and rich history of telling sports stories. She’s worked at the Miami Herald, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Times Leader in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and the Progress-Index in Petersburg, Va. She has reported from Kenya and Cuba, covered 10 NCAA Tournament Final Fours (men and women) and four Olympic Games. She was the Sunday sports editor at the Miami Herald when she left there to return to Penn State, her alma mater, to work for the school’s alumni magazine. She was part of a team that received awards for its in-depth coverage of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
Shontz found that as a newspaper editor she was more comfortable working with stringers, interns, and young reporters than she was with reporters and columnists who had been in the industry for decades. The impact she felt she had with young people as an editor led to a natural progression in teaching.
“Lori is an editor that any sports reporter at any level would be lucky to have,” Hoyt said. “To have that as a college student was incredible. She was tough, but she was good. I still call Lori once every couple of months to talk about things I’m going through or ‘Hey, I have this journalism thing I want to do, how should I do it?’ She’s my mentor and my editor, which is fantastic.”
In 2016 with the U.S. Olympic Team Trials - Track and Field at Hayward Field, eight of the 15 students in the Track Bureau class repeated the course in the summer to cover the Olympic Trials for various media outlets. And as the class continued to grow in stature and become more popular in the university’s SOJC, Shontz, as any good editor would, made revisions. This year, for example, there are photographers in the class for the first time.
“What I started to realize was this was actually better for students as a sophomore or junior because they got a lot of reps,” Shontz said. “What track class does is it gives you reps, and the student gets better quickly because they’re writing a couple of stories most weekends, and that doesn’t happen in most of our classes. So, I found in 2017 that I had a class that had a lot of younger students in it. That class really showed me that it doesn’t have to be at the end of your college career.
“This keeps my skills sharp. I don’t think you can effectively teach journalism unless you’re doing it, and the industry changes a lot. I’m not full time in a newsroom so it’s super important for me to be out there with the students to be seeing what full-time professionals are doing in the industry and to be able to incorporate that into my class.”
From 2015 through the end of last year’s Olympic Trials, students in Shontz’s Track Bureau had produced 199 stories for professional publications, mostly from the NCAA Championships. Among the 38 professional clients for Shontz’s class are the Seattle Times, the Houston Chronicle, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Tampa Bay Times, and Runner’s World. At the 2016 Olympic Trials, eight students wrote 88 stories in 10 days, including 44 for professional publications.
One of the students in the 2017 class was Shawn Medow, who works in production at Los Angeles television station KTLA and does freelance reporting. At the Prefontaine Classic that year, he was doing stories on Sifan Hassan, then an up-and-coming distance runner, and two of track and field’s biggest stars, Mo Farah and Allyson Felix. Medow said he immediately called his grandmother, who lives in London and was a big fan of Farah’s, to tell her what he had done that day.
“This is genuinely mind-blowing for a person who is 20 years old at the time covering something that you just wouldn’t think you would cover,” said Medow, a 2019 University of Oregon graduate. “I don’t think I’ve interviewed someone bigger than Allyson Felix at this point in my life, and I don’t think I ever will. We got to learn from a lot of people, from Associated Press writers to international writers who came for Prefontaine to people from all over the country who were there for NCAAs. I think everyone was like just kind of soak in everything we could and not just from Lori, but from those around us.”
Just as valuable as the writing experience students receive and the on-site editing Shontz gives these stories before shipping them off to media outlets around the country, is the interaction students have with experienced media professionals.
Urenda, who graduated from Oregon in 2017, said one of the most important lessons she learned was “not being afraid to ask questions in a room filled with so many different people and different publications.
“I’m also in the same scrum as all these big-time reporters,” she said. “I’m with KOIN and I'm interviewing somebody at the White House. There’s a New York Times person in the same virtual chat, and there’s USA Today and all these big names, CNN, or the Secretary of State’s office, same thing. That’s what she taught me, that I deserve to be in that spot.”
Vanoni was on the spot for the 2017 NCAA Championships when Shontz assigned her to cover Tennessee men’s sprinter Christian Coleman for the Knoxville News Sentinel newspaper.
“I didn’t know anything about Christian Coleman, and he’s expected to win both the 1(00) and the 2(00),” Vanoni said. “It was so much fun. I got to talk to him one-on-one before the meet. He ended up sweeping the 1 and the 2 so it was an easy story to write.
“It further grew my love for track and even the next season, I was interning for TrackTown. I was helping organize their Prefontaine pre-meet press coverage, and Coleman was there, and he actually recognized me as a student that covered him the year before so that was really cool. That’s a memory that I will always have of being able to talk with him and write about this before he became so big. I still follow his career a lot because he’s obviously incredible in what he does. Controversy or not, he’s still done a lot of really impressive things.”
Coleman, who set the collegiate record of 9.82 seconds in the preliminaries of the 100m that year, went on to win the 2019 world outdoor title in that event before being suspended for a whereabouts failure for missing drug tests, costing him a chance to run in the Tokyo Olympics. Eligible to compete again, Coleman has a bye into WCH Oregon22 as the reigning champion.
“That was my first real experience of what this was like and what it meant,” Vanoni said. “It was so unique. We got to go to all these meets, we got to practice writing on deadline, learn more about track. I didn’t have any other class like that in the J-school. That’s what led me to apply and get on the Emerald as a sports reporter.”
Vanoni’s sports writing career took off from there. After graduating from the University of Oregon in 2019, Vanoni interned at the Seattle Times and worked at The Orange County Register. Since 2021, she’s worked for Hearst Connecticut Media Group, where her primary beat is the storied UConn women’s basketball team.
Medow was assigned to cover three athletes in the 2017 NCAA meet, the same meet Vanoni covered. One of the athletes Medow covered was University of South Dakota freshman men’s pole vaulter Chris Nilsen, who tied for third. Another was Harvard junior women’s sprinter Gabby Thomas, who finished third in the 200m and didn’t make it out of the 100m preliminaries.
At last year’s Tokyo Olympics, Nilsen won the silver medal, and Thomas took the bronze in the 200m and is the No. 3 all-time performer in the event with her 21.61-second clocking from last year’s Olympic Trials. Thomas also ran on the silver-medal U.S. 4x100m relay team.
“We got some great content out there and interviewed some people no one had heard of at the time and now everyone knows them,” Medow said. “(Thomas) was someone who SOJC was doing a ton on before because the outlet in her hometown of Northampton, Massachusetts, was always getting us to do stuff and the next thing you know, this runner from Harvard is competing on the Olympic team and getting on a (medal) podium.
“And you look back at it, and wait a second, no one was in a scrum for her and now she is the hot topic, and NBC is grabbing her for all of their different (segments). And it’s cool, like, hey we were there when no one was there.”
After the 2018 NCAA meet, the Track Bureau went on hiatus with Hayward Field being rebuilt and unable to host meets until 2021. In 2019, Shontz and four students covered the Portland Track Festival and the Prefontaine Classic, which briefly moved to Stanford University, as tune-ups before they covered the World Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar. The SOJC funded the three-week trip to Doha, including an early arrival for students so they could go sightseeing and see something on their trip other than the competition stadium.
The students in Doha turned out a combined 51 stories for The Register-Guard newspaper in Eugene, The Oregonian and DyeStat.com, and 58 mixed-zone interviews for DyeStat as well as daily social media posts. That trip to Doha was crucial, Shontz said, in keeping the momentum of the class going without a track season in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and to prepare for this year’s World Athletics Championships. Shontz was planning on taking students to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics to cover it for the Seattle Times before the pandemic scuttled those plans.
“The biggest thing is you have to keep it front and center for students, so they’re interested,” Shontz said. “The SOJC has been hugely supportive of this. If the World Championships are going to be on our campus, it would have been really hard for me to cover this without having been to one in a while.
“That was the school making an investment in the sport, which is going to happen on our campus. I think it was a cool thing for the students, cool for me, and I do think it set the tone going forward.”
There are 11 students in this spring’s class, and eight of them will be covering the World Athletics Championships in July. Rather than having another Track Bureau class in the summer to cover the event, Shontz convinced the SOJC to make the students paid interns for this summer and believes “this is a much better model going forward.”
Former Track Bureau students say they’re a little jealous of those who covered the World Athletics Championships in Doha in 2019, and those who will be covering this summer’s event, but also take a great deal of pride in how the class has progressed.
“You just have to admire what this class has done, and the fact that World Championships are coming,” Medow said, “and a staple of it will be Lori Shontz’s track class. That’s brilliant to me, and really cool to be like, yeah, I was there before it was cool.”
And at the center of it all is Shontz, prioritizing the experiences of her students to better prepare them for a future career in journalism.
“Teaching is planting seeds, and hoping that they bloom, and trusting that they’re going to bloom,” Shontz said. “What has been amazing is how I’ve seen so many seeds bloom from this class, and it makes me happy every day.”
By Ashley Conklin